On July 1, 1979, 35 years ago today, a cultural phenomenon hit the world of personal electronics and that world has spiraled exponentially ever since. So much so, many generations today probably don’t know what a Sony Walkman was and wouldn’t recognize it cluttering up their grandparents’ junk drawer.
Not since the transistor radio in the mid-1950s that first put music into consumers’ hands had a product sparked a revolution in personal electronics and unlike the transistor, the Walkman was in stereo.
The technology wasn’t new but it was a new way of imagining that was sparked by a request made by Sony’s legendary chairman, Masaru Ibuka. He loved music and currently brought another Sony product on his many international flights. The product was too bulky for such use so portability was his request.
Ibuka asked his then-deputy Norio Ohga if he could come up with something better. Working with the company’s existing Pressman product—a portable, monaural tape recorder that was popular with journalists—Ohga had a playback-only stereo device rigged up in time for Ibuka’s next trans-Pacific flight.
Even though this proto-Walkman required large, earmuff-like headphones and custom-made batteries (which, of course, ran out on Ibuka midway through his flight), it impressed the Sony chairman tremendously with its sound quality and portability. Many within Sony balked at the concept. Would anyone actually buy a cassette device that was not for recording but only for playback? The Chairman’s response was probably the greatest understatement in business history.
“Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?”
After a breakneck development phase of only four months, Sony engineers had a reliable product ready for market at 30,000 Yen (approximately US$150 in 1979 dollars) and available before the start of summer vacation for Japanese students—both critical targets established at the outset of development. The initial production run of 30,000 units looked to be too ambitious after one month of lackluster sales (only 3,000 were sold in July 1979). But after an innovative consumer-marketing campaign in which Sony representatives simply approached pedestrians on the streets of Tokyo and gave them a chance to listen to the Walkman, the product took off, selling out available stocks before the end of August and signaling the beginning of one of Sony’s greatest success stories.
But alas, there is always someone else who comes along and makes something better or more innovative.
I recently saw a segment on the news about children asked to work with a portable cassette player. They didn’t know what it was or how to open it. The following Youtube video is or is very similar to the news segment I saw.
My post from a year ago today: What Happened on July 1st Beside the Battle of Gettysburg